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NOTEBOOK: If only Adolf had worn Pampers ...

Germans are at odds over claims that harsh potty training is to blame both for Nazism and modern thuggery
A friend of mine is convinced that the German national character in all its complexities can be traced back to Germans' rigorous potty training.

Teutonic infants, he claims, are made to sit on their lowly thrones for hours on end, until pronounced house-clean, usually at a remarkably tender age. Out of this early purgatory of life emerges a nation of precision engineers obsessed with waste disposal, with an unquenchable yearning for order and authority. My Jewish friend, referring me to the works of Sigmund Freud, believes this explains everything in German history, including the Holocaust.

Ridiculous. Or so I thought until I opened Die Zeit, Germany's most intellectual weekly. There it was: a 6,000-word essay on this very subject. Forget the Holocaust for one moment. What the author wanted to establish was whether East Germans were really susceptible to neo-Nazi views because of the harsh potty-training regime of the communist era.

For that is what a noted Wessi (West German) criminologist claims. Christian Pfeiffer, director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, thinks the xenophobia permeating east German society can be traced back to the creches. Professor Pfeiffer had been looking into the reasons why youth in eastern Germany are four times more likely to commit racially- motivated crimes than their western counterparts.

It all boils down to das Topfen, a word which exists only in the east German dialect, a noun forged bureaucratically from the word Topf - "potty". It denotes the ritual of potty training, a sacred act codified by precise instructions passed down from the Politburo. "As soon as the child is able to sit without help, the teacher can begin with regular potty training," the official instruction manual for creches and kindergartens ordained.

At set times, children were herded into a communal toilet and made to sit on rows of potties. "Potty times" were the creches' main activity, potty training the supreme goal of the institution. It served an ideological purpose. Through their synchronised bowel movements, the children of the proletariat shared the vicissitudes of life. Those who did not perform remained seated, while the avant-garde left to play. The dunces soon caught on.

Thus did East Germany become the country of world champion toddlers, faster out of their cotton nappies than any other nation. But the prodigies, Prof Pfeiffer says, were mentally scarred. They had been deliberately stripped of their individualism, and their first encounter with authority ended in humiliation and defeat: "The children's souls were raped." Had not Freud warned about the dangers of tampering with children's "anal phase" of development?

West Germany, on the other hand, has been a beacon of enlightenment. After the war, its greatest thinkers put their minds to work on the question of what had made Germans worship Hitler. The Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno blamed the authoritarian experiences of early childhood. And so, in an effort to produce a new generation of free thinkers, the Federal Republic banned potty training and decreed anarchy in the creches. The kids could defecate wherever they liked, for as long as they liked. All for the sake of self-expression. I asked around, as discreetly as one could under the circumstances. The expression Topfen drew a blank among (west) German friends. But they were all late developers, there is no doubt about it. One friend remembers sitting in her soiled trousers in her parents' car for what seemed like an eternity, and resolving to do the big job henceforth in the toilet. She was three years old at the time.

None of my acquaintances from the east have any recollection of wet pants. A totally unscientific probe conducted by this newspaper in one of East Berlin's seats of learning revealed a deep chasm between Ossis (easterners) resentful of the charge that they are all proto-Nazis because of their upbringing, and Wessis wallowing in their infantile liberties. Westerners all thought potty training was an outdated, authoritarian, practice. And yes, they conceded, maybe it did explain Hitler.

A division also emerged between north and south, Lutheran versus Catholic. One southerner remembered being farmed out to an aunt in the austere north, who potty-trained the child after a week. The mother, when she recovered her son, was outraged by this violation of the child's civil rights. They are still not speaking. The north, though, caught up with the progressive south in the 1960s.

But that part of northern Germany that became known for a while as the German Democratic Republic is still stubbornly lagging behind. That is why Prof Pfeiffer has gone on a tour of the cities of the former GDR to preach the virtues of disposable nappies. The reception has been extremely hostile. "Is it really better that the pampered children of the west turn up at school with their trousers full in the spirit of anti-authoritarianism?" asked one irate member of the audience in Magdeburg.

The people in the east talk of little else. Dresden's Sachsische Zeitung newspaper received more letters on this subject than on the 50th anniversary of the city's fire-bombing. Most readers thought that Prof Pfeiffer was, frankly, full of Scheisse. What about Solingen, they asked, the town near Cologne where Western youths had burned down a refugee hostel? Or the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in the south, where far-right Republicans gained more than 10 per cent of the vote in the regional elections?

Let us hope their indignation is not misplaced. For the traditional East German creche is very much alive, as West Berliners forced to move out of the city by soaring rents are discovering. Many of these establishments are still run with military precision. Check-in time at 6am, breakfast at eight, followed by an hour of "free play". Then comes the highlight of the day: das Topfen. I shudder to think what these children might get up to in 20 years' time.